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July 25, 2017

From the Counter: Kirkwood Outfitters


By Peter B. Mathiesen

“From the Counter” is NSSF’s timely series of industry perspectives from firearm retailers across the country. Our goal is to identify and highlight innovative marketing strategies, helping retailers compete more successfully.

Lessons learned will be drawn from an array of regions with diverse market economies in an era of political change. While in the past this column has focused on larger retailers, this month we’ll visit with a small storefront retailer in the Heartland.

Kirkwood Outfitters, Kirkwood, Missouri

Opened in 1994, this independent retailer is located in western suburban St. Louis County, in one of the wealthier zip codes in the country (yes, country). Originally focusing on hunting, home defense, and military surplus, Kirkwood’s Outfitters’ concentration today has changed dramatically since its inception. Now specializing in home defense, behind the counter at this shop is the owner and two part-time employees. The retailer stocks an average of 300 firearms. It recently moved into a new storefront a mile from its old location. The store is open five days a week from 11:00am to 6:00 pm.

Battling the Trump Slump

There was no question that when the election results were announced last November, this store’s sales floor was quiet enough to hear crickets.

“The Trump win resulted in an instantaneous halt in our retail sales. It may have been the worst Christmas sale season I’ve experienced in the store’s history. I couldn’t sell an MSR unless it was at or near cost,” said Dave Hart, owner.

Sales slumped. Yet, Hart reminded himself that although the heavy traffic in boom years may have been good for his pocket, he was firmly entrenched and had been lulled into a cycle of complacency. To move out of the centrifugal pull of this vortex, he would need to put his retail hat back on and strategize ways to post higher profit numbers. The high traffic ushered in during the Obama administration years had subsided.

Facing the Post-Election Lull

The post-election lull provided an opportunity for reflection. His first step was to remember why he was in business in the first place.

“I got into the gun business because I loved to shoot and collect. I sincerely believe in the Second Amendment and my fellow Americans’ rights as gun owners,” said Hart.

Hart felt that he and other retailers had lost their competitive edge in getting customers into the right firearms while also developing relationships with new shooters.

Meanwhile, as January 2017 got underway, this retailer’s customers began to change.

Welcoming a New Customer at the Door

Kirkwood Outfitters Storefront
Located in a wealthy St. Louis suburb, Kirkwood Outfitters turned around slumping sales by embracing a new clientele and providing them the firearms and instruction they were specifically seeking.

As a St. Louis, West County retailer, Kirkwood Outfitters’ primary demographic was a wealthy, white and married male who already owned a large variety of firearms. But during the second week of January, two single (unmarried) African American women came into the shop to ask about conceal carry classes.

A nexus of changes in Missouri and St. Louis County conceal carry laws, along with welcoming new customers at his door, moved the needle on Hart’s handgun business.

“We have had inner-city African American customers in the past. But, I could not remember the last time that a single woman came into the store without a boyfriend, husband, or relative encouraging the sale,” he said. “The tempo in this situation felt very different. These women understood they needed training—and they were interested in making a handgun decision without the help of a relative,” said Hart.

“These ladies had done their homework and they had an idea of what they wanted. Added safety and training was paramount to their decision in picking a retailer,” he said.

The following week, after attending Hart’s conceal carry class, one woman purchased a SIG and the other purchased a Glock. During the last week in January, four additional single African American women walked into the store expressing the same interest in concealed carry firearms and training.

It’s no retail secret that word of mouth and sending customers home with a clear understanding of the use and the safe responsibility of owning a firearm is a strong business model. Said Hart, “This pattern has replicated and grown from those first few customers.”

As of this interview, completed in July, Kirkwood Outfitters’ retail handgun turns are above the level of the Obama boom cycles.

“We have days where we can turn 20 handguns in an afternoon,” he said.

Responding to a Female Demographic

What makes Hart’s story so powerful is that this year the female demographic is approaching 50 percent of his total sales. As an added bonus, these sales are to new shooters.

“This shift is what our industry needs. Customers who previously perceived firearms negatively, now view them in a positive light. I can’t think of anything more powerful than an urban, potentially liberal, demographic enjoying handgun ownership,” said Hart.

Selling on the Distributor Cloud

While sales continue to improve for this retailer, one of the latest traffic builders has been distributor-based web sales. Tying Kirkwood’s website to a competitively priced click-through handgun purchase has resulted in consistent cash register rings.

“Almost every day I check our email to find one, two or even three purchases from our website. Most sales are shipped to the store. On average there is roughly a two-day turnaround. Then the buyer shows up for his NICS check and I have a brand-new customer, said Hart. He added, “I’ll admit the sales may not be as profitable as past turns last year. However, we didn’t advance-inventory the firearm, and it brings a new customer into the store.” Hart remarked that the sale typically closes with ancillary accessory sales.

Enhancing In-store Homeland Security

Another recent adjustment this retailer has made was to take his store security to a higher level. The St. Louis area has seen an increase in gun store burglaries. Typically, these take place after hours and late at night.

“Our new store is on the second floor of our retail building. We now lock everything in the safe at night,” said Hart.

Supplementary changes include the addition of smash-resistant display cases, as well as floor safes secured to the building. Hart did acknowledge that the security measures take more time.

“It adds an easy hour-plus to the day to take everything out of their display cases and put it away every evening. We take seriously our responsibility to protect our inventory from an illegal acquisition. It is our responsibility to our community,” said Hart.

Lessons Learned from the Counter

Several lessons were learned from the counter at Kirkwood Outfitters.

First is the willingness to ride the ebb and flow of the political tide. By confronting the post-election lull head-on and by opening the door to welcome new shooters and encourage demographic shifts, retailers can continue to move the sales needle.

Second is the willingness to listen to and meet these new consumers’ wants and needs. A change in state and local laws led to an increased demand for training and safety through concealed carry classes.

Third was to add the “cloud” to the store’s website to drive sales and attract new customers to the store. Once they’ve crossed the store’s physical threshold, higher-profit accessories fill the cart.

Finally, by investing time and money to add safety features to the store, this retailer is sending a strong, positive message into the community that he’s a responsible steward to the firearms industry.